What is Beijing attempting to do if it is not intending to capture territory? The happenings at the LAC could be to obfuscate its activities in other domains

by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

With the assessment of China’s intent in Ladakh still up for grabs, there is no harm in letting imagination go berserk but rationally. Moving PLA troops exercising in depth to the LAC to transgress at various friction points, and staying put at some and pulling back from others has long been the PLA’s salami-slicing strategy. It is clear that China concentrated insufficient troops forward to make any deep penetrations across the LAC. Resorting to conventional operations in Ladakh without sufficient high-quality foot infantry would never make military sense.

Armour and mechanised infantry along with artillery and missiles make a fine combination in the valleys and high-altitude plains; they project serious intent through visibility. Yet to hold ground or evict hardy Indian Infantry from the dominating heights, it needs the special guile and skills of foot infantry. The PLA just did not bring up enough of it. Perhaps it expected to whistle up more troops should the Indian Army respond in an unexpectedly offensive way.

The PLA also betrayed an element of its intent of not going beyond a threshold when it did not make haste to occupy the heights of Chushul Bowl before its extremely delayed attempt on 29 August 2020, leading to the Indian occupation of the Kailash Range. The quantum and quality of troops sent to seek eviction of Indian troops at Richen La seemed to betray a lack of intent to press home any operation; the optics of carrying improvised weapons was to psychologically message a repeat of the Galwan incident and not execute a tactical action.

So what is China attempting to do if it is not intending to capture territory or aggressively assert its claim lines beyond a point? Why is it constantly in touch with us through military talks? What’s behind its refusal to disengage and return its troops to the depth, at least for the winter? It appears reasonably certain that China does not wish to risk fighting a war without certainty of its outcome. A cursory examination of ongoing conflicts and some others in the recent past appears to indicate the rise of belief in Russia’s strategy towards achieving its ends.

Russia chose to push back against the US and NATO in Ukraine to limit their eastward march to its periphery, not through conventional means of warfighting, but by hybrid means. Simultaneously it seriously interfered in the US political system through proxies, bringing into effect the first real experiment of grey zone warfare. Limited military pushback took place at the fringes in Ukraine to paralyse the local forces and take control. The unprecedented, very efficiently coordinated actions of Russian soldiers, pro-Russian local separatists, the Russian media and diplomacy were described by many experts as an example of hybrid warfare.

So why would China wish to execute such hybrid warfare against India if it chose to borrow the Russian ideas? For all the friendly engagement with the Indian government and the personal rapport that Xi Jinping has with the Indian PM, there was something that made China uncomfortable. I felt that it was the increasing supremely confident attitude of India, not only related to its emerging status in the world but also to its security perceptions.

A couple of recent milestones contributed to it. Prime among them was the response against Pakistan’s sponsored proxy war events in 2016 and 2019; I refer to the triggered surgical strikes and the Balakot air strike. The world largely supported the Indian response and it was repeated with the abrogation of special constitutional provisions for Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019. In the middle of all this came the 72-days-long Doklam stand-off (2017) that perceptually went India’s way without a shot fired. None of this gave confidence to the Chinese.

Indian pushback against the BRI did not make China happy either. When Indian political leaders and officials started publicly speaking about the return to Indian control of the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK through which the CPEC runs, the Chinese probably felt that a threshold situation had been reached. Not acting could give wrong signals of China’s tolerance and encourage many other nations on its periphery to be emboldened against Beijing’s strategic interests. In all probability, China chose to employ a calibrated hybrid war against India rather than exercise any conventional option. Hybrid war allows a protagonist to test the waters and calibrate further responses or draw back without burning its fingers. Hybridity here is not of the J&K variety.

It involves border friction, intimidation, cyber threats, expansion of fronts and forcing of costly mobilisation, posturing, projection, economic warfare, and lots of ways of modern-day information and psychological warfare for which collusion with Pakistan was possible. The pandemic appeared a good time to execute this strategy. The PLA came prepared for LAC engagements and not a campaign-style conventional effort to capture objectives in depth. Its strength betrayed its operational intent. In jumping into conventional war against tried and tested Indian mountain troops, the PLA rightly felt it could not obtain positive outcomes.

Hybridity seems added in layers of activities that are slowly unravelling. Instances of money laundering and ‘hawala’ originating from Beijing are on the rise. Interference in the succession of the Dalai Lama through hawala deals has also been reported. Thus progressive economic warfare as the start point, with enhancement in defence expenditure due to part mobilisation and infrastructure development on fast-track mode, along with potential instigation and financing of some insurgent groups is adequate to initiate hybrid warfare—with prime focus on the happenings at the LAC to obfuscate the activities in other domains.

This, accompanied by a sponsored campaign to activate Nepal’s anti-India sentiment and hoping to repeat it once again in other nations on the periphery, is enough to force India on the back foot. The large-scale collection of data about Indian personalities, companies, businesses and political parties, and the well-developed cyber capability will help round off the hybrid effort. The manifestation of all this will most markedly be felt in the military domain where the discomfort of prolonged winter deployment in improvised habitat and tension at the front lines will keep the Indian nation obsessed while China seeks its next opportunities elsewhere, in another domain. Countering hybrid war is never easy due to obfuscation of intent. The adage ‘all of government approach’ holds true but before that, it needs an analysis to establish the aim and select the means. More on that later even as Indian strategic analysts hopefully address this deduction.